When I was the adolescent administrative program director in an outpatient substance abuse treatment facility, I was having lunch in my office one day with a pile of paperwork in front of me. With barely enough time to eat while working on a time-sensitive project, the receptionist told me I had a call waiting from an attorney in Miami. I was certain this call was a mistake, since I was in New Jersey with no link to Miami. I took it anyway, and so began another odyssey.
Little did I know that approximately five years later we’d have a president who was hell-bent on deporting innocent people who have been thrilled by the opportunity of growing up and living in what was — before he was elected — America the beautiful. This is but one story about how our president’s rulings are affecting one of “my” kids.
Junior’s (not his real name in order to protect his identity) grandmother was hospitalized in Peru. As they are a close-knit family, Junior’s mom immediately flew from New Jersey to visit her mother and was there for a few weeks. While visiting in the hospital, a nurse befriended her and they starting chatting. Junior’s mom told her that her son would probably come to Peru, too, because he was very close to his grandma and would want to see her.
Junior’s mom came home, and a short time later, Junior flew to Peru to visit his still-hospitalized, ailing grandma.
The same nurse found Junior sitting at his grandma’s bedside one day and talked to him. Seemingly innocently, she asked him to bring a small box back with him for her sister living here. With no suspicion, he agreed to do so.
Upon Junior’s arrival at Miami International Airport, the inspector scanned and opened his suitcase, where the small bagged box was in place. Junior was asked to open it, he did and found well over 100 Xanax. He had had no idea and was terribly frightened when he was removed with his belongings, excluding the pill box, and taken forcibly to the Miami police station.
Because Florida is the gateway state for drug smuggling, it has very strong rules, and smugglers are dealt with immediately. At the police station, he was allowed his one phone call. He called his mom who in turn called the Miami attorney, who then called me.
Because Junior was 18 at the time and had never before been in trouble with the law as a juvenile, his Miami-based attorney was able to negotiate with the prosecutor to have him put into Florida’s Adult Drug Court and allowed to go home to New Jersey under very fixed rules.
For one year he had to be enrolled in a substance abuse outpatient treatment facility, where he had to go to the program every day. He also had to have daily drug screens, with the results faxed to his attorney. After that phone conversation with the attorney, I agreed that our agency would assess him and put him into our program, but he would go into our adolescent component since he hadn’t reached the cut-off age for the adult section.
When Junior arrived on time that first day, I did his assessment and looked into the eyes of a relieved, yet scared teenager — rightfully so. He shared his whole story with me. He assured me that he never tried or used drugs — not even once. He said he came to America when he was 14, and both he and his mom had their green cards. He graduated from high school here, worked part time and was a student in our local community college, fulfilling the American dream of a better life.
He was not a gangbanger, a marijuana smoker or a drinker. He played soccer for relaxation and had a few friends, but mostly was a homebody with his mom. I knew from time spent with Junior that day that he didn’t belong in treatment and should have been out, living his teenage life. But I had to keep him anyway. That first drug screen came back as expected — as did hundreds more — clean as a whistle.
Sometimes I had Junior sit in group, other times we talked individually. Through a year’s worth of talking, I observed an already grounded young man become more introspective and mature before my eyes. He was so easy to interact with, no pulling of teeth, no grilling necessary.
All the staff looked forward to his daily appearance, and within fairly short order he became a role model for his peers, sharing his “story,” and showing how easy it was with one small unknowing step to wind up where he was.
He didn’t really need counseling. He was a well-brought-up teenager coming from a delightful, strong family unit. The staff came to love this kid as did I. He wasn’t needy, he was refreshing and honest and reliable. He was all the things way too many inner-city teens aren’t.
As Junior’s year with us finished, so did drug court for him. It was bittersweet, because as much happiness I felt for him, I knew my colleagues and I would miss seeing him every day. I was so proud of him.
I lucked out because Junior and I remained in contact. I guided him when he had trepidation about something; he helped me with computer-related issues, one of his many strengths. I observed his continued growth and maturity, and felt a sense of grandmotherly pride in his achievements.
He works part time and will graduate from community college in May. He and some friends have opened their own not-for-profit to give guidance and scholarships to other Latino teens and young adults. He’s so mature for 21, certainly a role model for his peers.
Last month his aunt and uncle offered him a trip to Europe with them. I begged him not to leave, as much as this trip meant to him. He didn’t. Instead, he is in the process of obtaining his citizenship, working with an immigration attorney.
I fear for him leaving the country on holiday because even though his case has been dismissed, with the “leadership” in the White House, we don’t know what a customs officer would do if his name was run through a computer, and because of some glitch in the system, he was detained.
Young people like Junior who came legally to this country deserve everything it can offer him, and to allow him and others to live the American dream. We cannot allow an incompetent president to take this away from them.
Jackie Ross is an experienced social worker with urban, disenfranchised youth, a lifelong child advocate and community activist. She previously founded a 501(c)3 in New Jersey that served youth, families and other adults.
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